The song Men of Harlech is something of an unofficial anthem in Wales. Every Welsh person knows the tune and despite the variety of lyrics over the years, the martial air has become identified with the country's determination to retain its identity. Harlech Castle in north Wales, one of the "iron ring" of castles intended to subdue Wales in medieval times, remains as a picturesqe reminder of the ultimate futility of the invader's ambition.
Outside of Wales, the song has become well known as a result of the film Zulu which told the story of a small detachment of soldiers and their epic stand against a huge Zulu army in southern Africa. The soldiers were from a regiment which recruited in south east Wales and the borders and their heroism came to be compared with the bold exploits of their ancestors in ancient days. The song would have been known in Wales before the Zulu War but was it actually sung at the battle of Rorke's Drift? The curator of the unit's regimental museum thinks it unlikely, since the song (first published in 1860) was only officially adopted by the regiment in 1881, whereas the action depicted in the film took place in 1879. Although we have the 1860 lyrics of the song, we do not have the version from the film. This was written especially for the film and enquirers are advised to seek the copyright holders (whoever they may be).
Just who were the Men of Harlech and how did they come to be associated with a bloody battle in Africa? The answer is to be sought through the mists of time and the story starts in the year 1283 when King Edward I ordered a mighty castle to be built at Harlech on the coast of Merionethshire in north Wales. This was just one of a ring of great castles designed to prevent the Welsh from challenging the sovereignty of England. The task of designing and building the castle was given to the Master of the King's Work in Wales, James of St. George. This man, one of the great military engineers of history, built a castle of the concentric type defended at the back by the sea and at the front by massive towers and walls up to twelve feet thick.
The defences of Harlech Castle were first tested in 1294 when a 37 strong garrison fought off Welsh besiegers led by Madog. In the next century the castle became neglected but was repaired before the occasion of the revolt led by Owain Glyndwr. After a long and grim siege Harlech was captured by Owain in 1404. The revolt could not be sustained, however, and the castle was recovered for the crown in 1408.
A period of comparative peace was brought to an end by the Wars of the Roses. In 1460 the castle was held by Lancastrian forces and endured a siege which is said to have lasted seven years. The constable, Dafydd ap Ieuan, and his garrison held out long after other Lancastrian commanders in England and Wales had surrendered to the Yorkist faction and Alan Reid (in The Castles of Wales, 1973, ISBN 0 85097 185 3) tells us the following story. "Dafydd ... widened his fame by replying to one summons to surrender with the boast that he had once held a castle in France so long against siege that all the old women of Wales talked of it; and now he would hold a castle in Wales until all the old women of France talked of it."
Eventually famine forced surrender and Dafydd handed the castle to Lord Herbert and his brother Sir Richard Herbert on honourable terms. King Edward IV at first refused to honour the terms of the settlement but Sir Richard Herbert, out of respect for the bravery of the defenders, is said to have offered his own life in exchange for Dafydd's rather than see his promise broken. These defenders were the Men of Harlech commemorated in the song.
Harlech Castle enjoyed 200 years of peace but became a testament to the genius of the designer, Master James, when it endured a further long siege in the first part of the Civil War. It finally surrendered to Oliver Cromwell's forces in 1647.
The South Wales Borderers and Monmouthshire Regimental Museum has paintings depicting the actions in the Zulu War. The regimental chapel in Brecon Cathedral holds the Queen's Colour, the banner which was recovered from a nearby river after the battle of Isandhlwana. Lieutenants Melvill and Coghill were cut down in its defence and were posthumously awarded Britain's highest military honour, the Victoria Cross. The bravery of the defenders of Rorke's Drift was also recognised when Lieutenant Bromhead and six soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross. They might not have sung the song, not all of them were Welsh, but no one would dispute that they were Men of Harlech.
Welsh people have always taken the song Men of Harlech on their wanderings
around the world but the film Zulu introduced it to lots of people
who simply enjoyed the song as a traditional, rousing, martial air. Mr.
B. M. of California wrote with a delightful anecdote
of his student days at Pomona College. I asked permission to publish it
here since his note also reminded me of William Randolph Hearst's connection
John Weston / Data Wales 2000/4